Students wait outside classrooms in Sittwe, capital of western Rakhine State on June 1, 2021. - Schools in Myanmar opened on June 1 for the first time since the military seized power, but teachers and students are set to defy the junta's calls for full classrooms in a show of resistance. (Photo by STR / AFP)

The emerging alternatives to ‘military slave education’

The overwhelming rejection of state education since the coup has spawned the emergence of learning alternatives, including plans for both physical and virtual universities.


In keeping with the motto embraced in state media, “national discipline starts from the school,” Tatmadaw soldiers began occupying school campuses in March. But unlike after the national uprising in 1988 and student protests in 1996, when the military closed universities or dispersed students to far-flung campuses, it is now trying to force students to return to school.

Although government schools re-opened in June, as few as 10 percent of students returned to their classrooms amid boycotts and demonstrations. Thousands of university professors – some sources say half of all academic staff – have been suspended for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement or for refusing to return to work.

Although the CDM is saying “no” to government education, many students are saying “yes” to educational alternatives that have emerged since February. The National Unity Government, teachers’ and students’ unions, the education departments of ethnic nationalities, non-profit organisations and other groups all plan to offer new educational programmes.

If the military’s hold on power is prolonged, these emerging institutions may become part of a parallel education system that offers content contrary to that provided in state schools. Another possible scenario, under which democratic forces regain control of the country, is that some of these organisations become the basis for a reimagined education system that is more consistent with democratic than authoritarian principles. 

This struggle over education in Myanmar – who controls it, what it contains and how it is delivered – is not new. These alternatives to government education are the latest effort to counter the status quo, and are likely to provide a sharp and positive contrast to the pro-military nationalism that the State Administration Council is offering in government schools. 

Progress, interrupted

In January, the future of education in Myanmar appeared to be navigable, if not smooth sailing. The Ministry of Education was poised to release the second phase of the National Education Strategic Plan, or “NESP 2,” which would have charted a course for the next 10 years of reform. 

As part of the NESP 1, from 2016 to 2021, the ministry released revised curricula for most primary and some secondary grades. I have argued elsewhere that the new textbooks missed opportunities to build pluralistic and democratic values, but they were of higher quality and more inclusive than those they replaced.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party and National League for Democracy governments had also made gestures toward decentralisation, including considering coordination with what are called Ethnic Basic Education Providers (educational entities affiliated with ethnic armed groups such as the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Organization). Although student unions had been quite critical of the National Education Law, the ministry had at least promised greater autonomy to higher education institutions. 

The reform process was far from perfect, and I and other researchers and practitioners criticised its products and processes, but the lively debate about education contrasted sharply with the constrained discussions that occurred under military rule.

Reforms stopped on February 1. Organisations including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank paused funding on all projects, including those related to education. The SAC’s Ministry of Education announced that there would be no change to the curriculum for the coming school year. While the ministry presented this as a positive – that education reforms would not be reversed – it also interrupted the scheduled release of new textbooks. 

The impact of the halt to reforms may not be immediately apparent, because so few students are attending school. Amid the bombings of schools and education offices, concern about the COVID-19 pandemic, and objections to the SAC’s ideology and practices, schools are running far below capacity. A look at Myanmar’s history helps to understand why.

Echoes of the past

Student and teacher activism since the coup is rooted in a long history of politicisation of schooling in Myanmar. CDM participants are well aware of these historical connections, which inspired the description of the SAC’s school system as “military slave education” (စစ်ကျွန်ပညာရေး). This phrase harks back to the 1920 student protests against the British colonial “slave education” system that helped spark the Burmese nationalist movement. At that time, students demanded “national schools” with Burmese as the medium of instruction, as a counter to a British education system they regarded as elitist and pro-imperial. 

A new generation of students continued this tradition of activism later in the 20th century, and were among the first to protest against the 1962 coup. When the dictator Ne Win demolished the Rangoon University Student Union building with explosives in July that year, it illustrated that not only colonial but also Burmese rulers were determined to use education as a tool for social control. 

For decades, the military junta used school curricula as propaganda for its rule, but the key role students played in the uprisings of 1988 and 1996 showed that these attempts at indoctrination were not entirely successful. Those in power continued to target students as potential troublemakers and feared their ability to organise resistance and to collaborate with other groups. 

It is not surprising, then, that CDM-affiliated student leaders regard their current boycott as a symbolic act, and also a practical matter of self-preservation that allows them to avoid the danger and trauma of attending schools run by the SAC. However, students are not only boycotting classes, they are also participating in new endeavours that could transform the educational landscape. 

Screenshot of the hompage of Virtual Federal University taken on June 24, 2021.

The rise of alternatives

Although the coup may have paused the reform process, some observers say the disruption to the education system offers a chance to revolutionise outdated models and content. Dr Thein Lwin of the Thinking Classroom Foundation says that despite restrictions, students have been finding ways to learn together and independently while participating in the CDM, including by using the internet to connect in creative ways. 

Generation Z seems to be seeking out alternatives to traditional schooling, with its “one right answer” rote learning model and suppression of dissent. The combined resistance of students and teachers is an intergenerational collaboration in which younger activists can benefit from the wisdom of older peers. 

In fact, there may be an opportunity to expand the category “students” in productive ways. Can workers be students? Can grandmothers be students? Can students be teachers? Opposition to the SAC has transformed social relationships in unexpected ways, and education is no different.

Nonetheless, there is an educational gap to be filled, and several groups are attempting to address it by offering classes that allow CDM participants to continue to develop their skills while boycotting school or work. These groups share the common aim of providing education to support democracy. However, they differ in their platforms, target audiences, principles, and approaches, which may make it difficult for students to navigate the options. 

First, the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Education plans to create a parallel education system for basic and higher education. NUG deputy education minister Daw Ja Htoi Pan has mentioned “homeschooling” as the best option for basic education, and the NUG is soliciting university-level content from professors inside and outside the country via Moodle. It also hopes to establish a physical campus for a planned Federal University.

Confusingly, the establishment of another physical Federal University is also the goal of a coalition of groups including the Thinking Classroom Foundation, university teachers’ unions, migrant education organisations, church-based education groups, and Mon, Karenni, Karen and Shan education centres. The proposed university might be built in an area under the control of an armed ethnic group.

This Federal University aims to be autonomous and to provide free education in line with the principles of federalism and self-determination. It would prioritise admitting students who have attended schools run by ethnic armed groups, as well as church-based schools, and migrant schools. In the past, the qualifications of students who attended these schools were not recognised. The university could also accept students who had attended government schools.

A virtual option is Spring University Myanmar, which plans to offer online courses in preparing for university study, as well as in disciplines such as law, economics, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, federalism, peace studies, arts and sciences, and (most uniquely) ethnic languages. 

The university’s goals include opposing the SAC’s “slave education” system while building capacity and providing part-time jobs for people involved in the CDM. Applications were recently sought for a range of positions, including a graphic designer, content writers, and a scholarship coordinator.

Courses are being offered for a fee of about US$100, and profits will be used to grow the organisation or to support the CDM. Scholarships are also available. SUM uses Telegram and Facebook to communicate with students.

Another online option is the Virtual Federal University, which was started by student union leaders seeking free, critical education to support a federal political model while building grassroots participation. In cooperation with scholars and practitioners from abroad, VFU offers short audio lectures organised into larger courses, which can be downloaded from its website and, in the future, maybe broadcast by radio, TV or both.

VFU is also partnering with international institutions. It has arranged for Princeton University’s EdX program to offer a synchronous global history course that can be audited or for which students can be granted a certificate of completion. (Disclosure: I am involved with VFU, and will be offering a short course called “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Top 5 Myths About Myanmar’s History” in the coming months.) 

Challenges and opportunities

More educational ventures are being started all the time, but obstacles abound. The first concerns funding, which is scarce in a situation complicated by the difficulty of getting money in and out of Myanmar. Providing financial aid to striking teachers and supporting students who are boycotting classes is a key priority of several groups, but the mechanics are difficult. 

Second, security is a worry for many students and teachers at a time when even an indirect association with CDM-affiliated or foreign organisations can be dangerous.  It remains unclear how institutions mentioned above will be able to protect their students from harassment by the SAC.

Finally, it is difficult to plan and execute any kind of educational endeavour under the current circumstances. Unreliable communications, violence perpetrated by the military, the trauma, displacement, and upheaval that many students have experienced, and uncertainty about the future all make schooling – whether virtual or in-person – rife with challenges. Maintaining education quality is difficult in any circumstances, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, military rule, and escalating civil conflict, it is an even more daunting task.

Despite the challenges, students and alternative education providers seem determined to proceed. SUM and VFU each have thousands of followers on Facebook. The NUG’s Ministry of Education is initiating its university program. There seems to be considerable enthusiasm over these developments among many of the nation’s youth.

For now, the diversity of alternative educational initiatives appears to be both a strength and a weakness. Although the range of organisations, formats and platforms may be able to meet the needs of students, there is a lack of consistency and parity among the various options. Some offer certificates, some don’t, some charge fees but others are free, some are affiliated with political groups and others are not. It is not yet certain which institutions will outlast the coup and which may become redundant or merge with others.

It is clear that the future of education in Myanmar depends to some extent on political developments linked to the coup. However, it is also important to remember that political developments may also depend at least in part on education. With the ambitious plans of these alternative providers, education in Myanmar could become not only a response to change but also a driver of it.

In other words, the educational arena can be seen as a microcosm of the larger society. If students can manage to learn together across ethnic, political, religious, economic and regional divides, it will bode well for the country’s future.

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